Some writers love to come up with titles for their stories, articles, or books. Some hate it. Some are good at it, some are awful. But we all have to do it, like it or not. A title can make or break a pitch, even though editors will often change our titles.
So here are my twelve top tips (try saying that ten times fast!) for titling your tomes:
- Know your market.
If you’re writing for the Christian market, some words and phrases should not be in your title. A title that enchants women may not appeal to men. Or kids. And so on.
- Define the genre, tenor, tone, and theme you want your title to convey.
A great title for a Gothic romance probably won’t fly for your picture book. Obviously.
- Review at least twenty titles in your genre.
Or 100. Become a student of titles, especially in your genre. Figure out why you find some more intriguing or compelling than others.
- Brainstorm a list of words related to your story, article, or book.
Sometimes a title leaps out at you. At other times you have to go fishing. And brainstorming words and phrases that relate, even tangentially, to your piece may spark inspiration.
- Circle or highlight words that might work as a single-word title.
I know many people don’t like single-word titles, but I’m kind of partial to them, myself. Holes. Dune. It. 1984 (okay, that last one’s cheating, but just a little).
- Start experimenting with different word combinations.
Some titles seem to be delivered to the author, while others take time and effort—and play—until something “clicks.” I wonder if that’s what happened with Neverwhere and Dragonspell.
- From those lists, compile a list of twenty or more possible titles.
Don’t stop until you have twenty, even if you think one or two are positively, absolutely, “the winner.”
- Narrow your list to 4-5 possibilities.
Try not to focus only on your “favorites,” at this point. It’s too soon for that. Shoot for variety.
- Compare your short list to the list of titles from other books, especially those in your genre.
Are any too similar to someone else’s title? Do any not sound like a title in your genre? Do they evoke what you want them to? (I recently chose a name for a children’s book that the editor thought could have been the title for a Stephen King novel, a possibility that had totally escaped my attention).
- Field test 4-5 titles.
For example, write the titles on 3×5 index cards and show them to friends and acquaintances, especially those who read in your genre. Ask not only “which one do you like?” but also “what does it suggest to you?”
- Ask a few more questions of your top title.
Does it “snap, crackle, and pop?” Does it lend itself to a sequel or series? Would your target audience be drawn to it? Etc.
- Run with it…but don’t fall in love with it.
Remember that your job in writing and pitching your work is to come up with a perfect title. But there’s a good chance a savvy editor will make it better…or replace it entirely. That’s a good thing.
Of course, you may do all of the above, and still not be excited about your title. That’s okay. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
You may want to start the above process again, and do it as many times as necessary to “nail it.” That’s okay, too. It’s an art, not a science.
You may need to keep writing, using a “working title,” and praying that something better will leap out at you. Sometimes that happens—like the sudden realization that I should have called this post, “Creating a Title Wave.”
Ask Steve about a romance called Of Martyrs and Monsters. I really thought that was provocative enough to turn heads…and it did, but not in a good way. Oy. I agree that you need to get others’ opinions. Just because I’d read a book with that title, doesn’t mean others will.
I have struggled with a book title. I thought I knew it but my editor says, not important right now, just write the book and finish it. But it gets in my way. She is right, of course. So, now I read this.
Hmmmm. Just keep swimming…
John de Sousa
This sounds like fun! In fact, it makes me want to create a list of titles as a way to inspire future projects. What titles would catch my eye in a store? What plotline could those titles inspire? The wheels are turning….
I’m working on a trilogy, so it’s 12 steps x3. Seems like a thousand. I’m happy with my choices. The books will forever be in my heart as these one-word working titles — like the sweet baby name for my son that I would never use on the mature adult he is now.
Oh, this made me giggle. A lot. My son is a (semi) mature 33 year old, and boy, did I have a lot of sweet (or funny) names (even his first name, hey!). Including but not limited to, Sugar, Man-Child, Bubba… and the ever calling him out on something he did wrong: Vincent Francis Matthew! He now goes by Vinnie yes like the mobster.
Bubba got me into the most trouble. At an airport we were waiting at a table shared by some Japanese American women, perhaps first gen, I don’t know… Matt was 5.
But I kept calling him, Bubba.. i.e. ‘Are you full, Bubba? You need another hotdog?’
OH dear. One of the ladies, said, ‘Hello, Bubba….’ and my son turned to me… and it was the first evil eye I’d received.
Wow. Sounds like a great title to me. This book, Bubba, is dedicated to Bubba, my son, who never forgave me for that. Ever.
🙂 LOL great reply
As I work to improve my novel, you’ve got me thinking about the title. I told our tax guy (he asked!) the title, and right away he assumed it was a picture book. Yikes. When I told him about it, he was interested and actually opened up to us about his own struggles and faith. But I have to wonder if he would have passed on my novel if he were to see it sitting on a shelf because of the title.
My question, does the promo sentence add a lot to the title, expanding on the message, or should the title be able to stand alone? (If my promo sentence is included, my novel goes from a picture book to a contemporary story of pain and God’s gentle touch.)
The cover art is the clothing you wear to a job interview, and the title is your handshake.
Firm, brief, and confident.
Excellent comparison, Andrew. “Firm, brief, and confident.” Love that! Thanks!
To carry the analogy to its conclusion, your words…back cover, first page, or whatever the potential buyer chooses to scan…are the answers to the interviewer’s questions about your experience, skills, and potential.
You never now which words will be the winning combination, and so, they’re all of them important.
Andrew, you know how to pick a dog and eloquently write a very useful reply to Bob’s excellent post. Great analogy. Thanks to both of you.
I am one who struggles with a title. I’ve already been through over twenty. I am on the trail of a blog, though, which hopefully combines some research, and will by the grace of God help others.
Morning! This is a timely topic for me, as many of agency’s blogs are. I self-published my first novel. (Remember self-publishing? It was between vanity publishing and indie publishing.) I never cared for the title – it wasn’t quite on the mark. Now I’m very glad I didn’t come up with the perfect title back then because I have it now, along with a completely overhauled manuscript.
As it turns out, my writing career had a very long gestation, about 20 years, but it appears the birth pains have begun. Now I’m praying for the strength to survive the labor and bring this new thing into the world. A lot of writers die in childbirth, but I don’t intend to be one of them.
This is a great list, Bob! Numbers 1 and 10 are especially vital. I didn’t realize how broad my market was until I saw who was rating and reviewing my first novel. I discovered that 10-20% of my readers were male. That required a last-minute change of title for the second. In fact, the cover art had the old title on it until less than a month before release.
It’s a story of a politically ambitious pagan Roman who falls in love with a Christian woman who will only marry a fellow believer. The first title was Love Triangle, where the third person in the triangle was God. I loved that title, but a beta reader told me it sounded like a secular romance, not a romantic historical where the main plot arc is his spiritual transformation. Definitely a male-repellant title, so I needed to select another. The final title, Blind Ambition, captured the essence of his problem, and men liked it as much as women did. I made sure of that by trying it out on both men and women before changing the cover and the material in the back of the first novel that advertised the next volume in the series.
I recommend combining #1 and #10 to make certain we pick something that works for our whole audience, not just what might be good for the narrowest definition of our genre. Testing on women, men, and people of different ages is vital for that.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
So, Bob, what do you think of “Victoria Susan isn’t Dead Yet but She Certainly Isn’t Alive, Either” for a contemporary romance suspense novel? Okay, I admit it’s probably back to the drawing board on that one….
A bit long, but it sure snagged my attention. That would make a GREAT tagline, Sheri. I’d read further, for sure.
Ditto. It hooked me too, even though you’re spoofing. Reminds me of the title of one of my faves: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.
Sherri, nice sense of humor there…. 😉
Great blog, great replies. There are great long titles out there, think, The Man Who Walked Up the Hill and Came Down a Mountain.
Intriguing. Many good and great books but some titles too long, some give away the end (John Dies at the End- I didn’t read it because of it. Found out it was laced with profanity etc too).
I went through several. Passed them by friends. The first (after WIP) was a mystery title, vague, boring (according to an honest friend). The book is a romance. The second was a one word, but sounded more like a car crash than a romance. My final one hit pay dirt, sounds like a romance.
Of course, it still may be changed, who knows. Add it to the cover (that I imagine), and back page, and yes my friends, even my honest to gosh friend said, ‘Perfect. It describes the genre and raises a brow.’
(Every picture of my books on the website is merely in my imagination in overdrive)
I found a name generator site that includes everything, including titles, names, first lines, plots (I use the names) and help for authors. I mix and match titles. OK so I dump them for the most part. But it is a starting place. I don’t like using WIP, then it never seems to want to pass that. Can you imagine every novel named… WIP?
P.S. Possible titles… (you knew I’d go there, right?) ‘Title Wave,’ ‘Goodbye, WIP.’ ‘Frankly, Dear I don’t Have a Title,’ ‘For the Love of Titles!’ ‘Fifty Shades of Titles,’ ‘Finding Titles.’ (meh)
I’ve been stuck for seven years in a title trance with well over twenty on the list.
Thank you for these great tips! I’ve always thought book titles (and covers) are like a receptionist at a business. The first impression means a lot.
I LOVE coming up with titles!! To do so, I explore theme, key words, and story arc…